When democracy was set back more than a century

Many Democrats would probably agree that George W. Bush’s capture of the presidency, 20 years ago, was a big injury for democracy.

It was, but the biggest injury was inflicted by default, by Al Gore and other leading Democrats, well before Florida’s “hanging chads” and the Supreme Court entered the picture.

At the start of 2000 it was not at all destiny that “the Electoral College decides, not the voters” would become a 21st century rule. What we think of as “how the Electoral College works” is an extra-constitutional custom which emerged after its intended operation jammed hopelessly in the 1796 election. As of 2000, this mechanism was in practice little more than a footnote, as the winner of the most votes had always become president for more than a century.

Realistically the Electoral College had never overturned a majority vote of the people prior to 2000, because in previous splits with “the popular vote” there was no real popular vote. In the 1888 election, the vote was still denied to women, to most nonwhites, and to all adults under 21. More than a century later, there was no precedent for the Electoral College to overturn a free and fair election with universal adult suffrage. Nor was it inevitable that such would be the case. Republicans fully intended to delegitimize the Electoral College if it disfavored them, as many believed it might that year:

NY Daily News: So what if Gore wins such crucial battleground states as Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania and thus captures the magic 270 electoral votes while Bush wins the overall nationwide popular vote?

“The one thing we don’t do is roll over,” says a Bush aide. “We fight.”

How? The core of the Bush strategy assumed a popular uprising, stoked by the Bushies themselves, of course. In league with the campaign – which prepared talking points about the Electoral College’s essential unfairness – a massive talk-radio operation would be encouraged.

“We’d have ads, too,” said a Bush aide, “and I think you can count on the media to fuel the thing big-time. Even papers that supported Gore might turn against him because the will of the people will have been thwarted.

Republicans got to enjoy the benefit of planning to raise hell, if the Electoral College turned out to disfavor them, then having their opponents defer to it as proper and fair when it turned out the other way.

This was a huge, hugely costly mistake.

Gore and Democrats might have protested after the fact, of course, but more importantly they might have taken a firm position beforehand and hammered at Republicans to join in forswearing “the Electoral College’s essential unfairness.” I don’t know what would have happened, in that event, but any outcome would have been better than what did happen.

Democrats placed a bet that an archaic, undemocratic precedent from a long-ago era would function to their benefit in one election, even though once readmitted for the 21st century it would certainly harm democracy on an ongoing basis. Instead, Democrats lost the bet, they suffered the short-term costs, and all America continues to suffer the long-term costs.

It’s no good saying they couldn’t have known; they could and should have known that anti-democratic practices are dangerous. It’s no good saying that Republicans always would have pursued whatever advantaged them, with no regard for fairness or honesty; the GOP was not yet quite so debased as it is today, and even if they came down on the side of “the Electoral College decides,” it needn’t have become a bipartisan consensus if Democrats had taken a firm stand for “the people should decide” beforehand.

Instead, Democrats decided to play it cagey, and by the time Al Gore did attempt to sacrifice personal interest “for the good of the country” rather than fight, he had already sacrificed the personal, the party, and the country by default.

It may not be possible to overstate the catastrophic costs of not meeting this genuinely millennial moment. It isn’t just the ruinous Bush presidency, or the Trump presidency, or even the perpetual bias against Democrats which has now been normalized. It’s the fact that this could have been a step forward for representative democracy, and the principle that government of/by/for the people really mattered, and wasn’t just a loose reference to government by rigged maps and dubious rules.

When America, instead, conceded that the people were secondary to procedural gaming, it set us on a retreat from representative democracy, away from fairness. That retreat is still going on, and whatever eventual end it may have will be reached only after much more irreparable harm.

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